The driver relentlessly broke through the dirt road, often guessing the direction of the road which was blurred by the smoke dust. After the view was cleared, the scene wasn’t much better. On both sides loomed ninth circle of hell. Immense misery.
Wooden and weathered houses looked as they were double cursed. In the monsoon season they were threatened by flooding, so the beams were lifting them from the ground, and in the summer the sun burned to heat.
In the evening we finally arrive in Phnom Penh and in front of us there is black man, without an eye, and in the uniform of “Chelsea”.
“I am Mister Pork!” – said the stranger, and as we laugh pineapple is flooding out of our mouths. With that statement, he won our hearts and in the following days he was our official driver, who often made us laugh.
The very same night Toni was already playing football with local boys on the beautiful square, where King Norodom waved, and I was astonishingly recording monumental statues.
Since Phnom Penh was just a transit city where we applied for visas for Vietnam, we took advantage to tour the city.
I always first check the market, because it is mirroring the soul of the city. And the reflection of this one was a wonder. The endless labyrinth of the market offered everything from divination of cards to all sorts of stuff.
We marveled at their callousness, since they were easily killing the animals, most of which were live and waiting for the end, and they were as amazed by us. Strangers rarely or almost never go there.
We also visited the Museum of Genocide – Choenuk Ek – sad reminder of the victims of Pol Pots’ Khmer Rouge. The path guided us through one poor neighborhood, where, because of the garbage on the street, we could not breathe without surgical masks. Suitable prelude to all the horrors that we are about to see in that mournful building.
All those thousands of skulls in cabinets and photographs of atrocities beside them, as if they were silently narrating about an epoch of insanity, where members of one nation killed nearly a third of their countrymen.
We were so moved by what we saw, that even the tour of truly beautiful complex of temples – Royal Palace – couldn’t cheer us up.
After two days of Phnom Penh, we drove to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, formerly Saigon, full of impressions of Cambodia that we were leaving.
What remained was a bitter taste of the crimes of the recent past, cruelness to animals and misery, especially when we thought of that one child who asked for a piece of bread. On the other hand, we were delighted with their legacy of glorious history, the struggle for life and those kind people whose life conditions helped us understand just how fortunate we are at home, despite everything.
Our mood was lifted by the bus driver, screening the action movie with Jackie Chan. Nothing unusual, except that the high-pitched woman’s voice was the only one in the film. For the main character as well as the hardened criminals. Yes, this is Asia.
The largest city of South Vietnam welcomed us like any Asian metropolis.
There were thousands of bikers, shops and people around us, so we felt, especially after the peaceful and rural Cambodia, that we were in a hive, where the air was polluted to the extent that they all wore masks.
Luckily we only stayed overnight in a hostel. At dawn a rural mini bus took us to the National Park Cat Tien. It’s amazing how many additional packages were squeezed among passengers.
After five hours of joyful ride, we arrive at a small village and we rent the whole cabin. The night before the expedition we rest in easy chairs protected from mosquitoes. We are put to sleep by the orchestra of thousands of forest insects and birds.
The sun has yet to announce dawn and we are already on a small boat cutting down the river to the other bank. Two bicycles and twenty miles of hell – on a dirt parcel full of stones – led us to the villages of Chau Ma, Stieng and Tay tribes.
A brief break in the village where I photograph traditional houses of straw, its inhabitants and the work they are engaged. Since we found them binding of the bamboo branches in thick bundles, we helped them with their work. I didn’t want to disturb them with my photoshoot for free.
As far as visiting the indigenous peoples, with the greatest sadness I will remember the very coffee I had there. As a self-proclaimed “coffee-holic”, often on trips I have problems with a lack of that caffeine beverage or a bad version of it, but now I can say without any doubt that this tribal and branded “Ta Lai Coffee” – was the best coffee in my life!
With the divine drink we listened the exaggeration about huge elephant who came to the river near the village and let so much water out of his trunks that the villagers thought that it was a waterfall.
To our dismay they added up the story and a man who passed under it without even noticing it. We greeted the hosts and walked into the jungle. We were warned not to go without a guide.
– “We’ll stick to the edge of the river and we will not go astray.” – said Toni, and then we both went numb when he almost fell into a hole in the mud made the elephants’ foot.
The story of villagers was more and more believable. However, the elephant was not appearing, but we did come across dead bats, killed by some clumsy serpent in the crown of the tree. We also came across monkeys, messengers of our presence in the forest. The temperature was about thirty-five degrees Celsius, but unbearable because of the tremendous humidity.
We sought refreshment in the lake, and we were not alone. On the other side of the shallow water stood a herd of over fifty rugged and wild buffaloes. Astonished, we approached them to take better photos, and they started to approach us, in order to protect their offspring. Believe me, not even a bit pleasant experience. Despite the dangers, we enjoyed those three days in the wilderness of Cat Tien. We didn’t manage to see the huge elephant.
We returned to Ho Chi Minh, so I visited a Buddhist temple Jade Pagoda, Notre Dame church and war museum, where I caught emotional moments, especially Americans in front of the photographs of Vietnamese victims.
I do not mention Tony because in a very bad timing, right before going to the greatest attraction of our journey – night in the Hang An cave – he got intestinal virus. We firmly kept postulates of thermally processed food, peeled fruits and bottled or filtered water.
In the morning we flew to Da Nang for less than 20€. Da Nang is a city in the central part of Vietnam, almost 900 kilometers away. There was eleven days and over 10,600 kilometers behind us, while the third largest cave in the world was waiting…